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How Nutritious Are Plant-based Milk Alternatives Made From Oats, Soy Or Almonds Vs Cow’s?

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Cow’s vs Plant-Based Milk from Oats, Soy or Almonds: Which is Healthier?

A new report from the University of Minnesota School of Public Health Nutrition Coordinating Center that examined more than 200 plant-based milk alternative products finds most healthy milk alternatives made from plant sources such as oats, soy, or almonds don’t deliver the same nutrition as cow’s milk.

With an increasing number of people opting for plant-based milk alternatives such as soy, oats, or almonds, the question arises whether these substitutes provide the same nutritional benefits as cow’s milk. Recent research indicates that most do not.

Cow’s milk is a key provider of calcium and vitamin D, nutrients that the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans flagged as being under-consumed and therefore of public health concern. It also contributes significantly to the protein intake of Americans.

To compare the nutritional profile of plant-based milk substitutes with cow’s milk, researchers analyzed over 200 such products available in the U.S. in 2023. This study incorporated a far larger number of products than previous research.

The findings showed that merely 12% of the analyzed alternatives offered equivalent or greater levels of the three examined nutrients: calcium, vitamin D, and protein.

“Our results provide evidence that many plant-based milk alternatives are not nutritionally equivalent to cow’s milk,” remarked Abigail Johnson, assistant professor and deputy director of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health Nutrition Coordinating Center.

Plant-Based vs Cow’s Milk: Are Milk Alternatives Nutritionally Equivalent?

The Nutrition Coordinating Center of the University of Minnesota, which maintains a database of approximately 19,000 foods for nutritional research, has noticed an uptick in consumer preferences for plant-based milk substitutes. Johnson said, “Our project aimed to expand the range of these substitutes in our food database.”

The study included 233 plant-based milk substitute products from 23 manufacturers, using nutrient calculation programs to estimate full nutrient information.

The team compared the nutritional profile of various substitutes, like almond, oat, and soy milk, amongst each other and with cow’s milk.

Just 28 plant-based substitutes had equivalent or superior calcium, vitamin D, and protein content.

Most of the products studied were derived from almonds, oats, or soy.

Which Plant-Based Milk Has the Most Protein?

It was found that 170 of these plant-based substitutes were fortified with both calcium and vitamin D, similar to dairy milk. Specifically, 76% of oat-based, 69% of soy-based, and 66% of almond-based substitutes were fortified with both nutrients.

The median protein content was 2.0 grams per 240 milliliters of liquid, with a wide range from 0 to 12 grams. Only 38 (16%) of the products studied matched or exceeded the 8 grams per 240 milliliters found in cow’s milk.

Higher protein was more likely in soy- and pea-based substitutes.

Which Plant-Based Milk is the Healthiest Alternative to Cow’s Milk?

“Based on these findings, consumers should look for plant-based milk alternative products that list calcium and vitamin D as ingredients. They may also want to consider adding other sources of calcium and vitamin D to their diets,” the author added.

Johnson added, “Our findings point to a need to ensure that consumers are aware that many plant-based milk alternative products in the marketplace today are not nutritionally equivalent to cow’s milk.”

“Product labeling requirements and dietary guidance to the public are among the approaches that may be helpful in alerting and educating consumers.”

The research team intends to explore additional nutrients present in plant-based milk substitutes that differentiate them from cow’s milk in their next study. For instance, many of these products contain fiber, which could fulfill certain nutritional requirements that cow’s milk does not.

Johnson will present these findings at the annual NUTRITION 2023 conference held by the American Society for Nutrition in Boston.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

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